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Author's Chapter Notes:

Alyssa and Nick finally get an opportunity to talk things out.

Chapter 5 – Saving Grace

The next few weeks flew by for Alyssa and she’d pretty much moved on from her chance encounter with Nick and Shayla. She’d chalked it up to pure happenstance and even though they now lived under an hour away from each other, she didn’t plan on running into him anytime soon. They traveled in two completely different social circles and outside of a few mutual friends they’d probably manage to steer pretty clear from each other.

Before Alyssa realized, it was the middle of March and the date of Grace’s third birthday party. She’d driven out to LA for the party alone since Sean had tickets for a Lakers game with Steve and Ian, which was kind of a relief to Alyssa. They’d been spending so much time together lately to make up for their time apart once Sean was sent to Iraq, that Alyssa was beginning to feel just a little stifled. This would be the first time in weeks that they did something apart and Alyssa felt like it would be good for the both of them.

As her car approached Izzy and Tristan’s home, she could tell that a lot of the guests were already there just by the large number of cars parked near the house. Finding an open spot on the street, she pulled over and shut off the engine of her tiny Jetta. A grin came over her face as her eyes grazed over the large wrapped package on the seat beside her. Izzy was going to kill her and she knew that the gift she had brought wasn’t exactly appropriate for a three year old, but Godmothers were supposed to spoil their godchildren with over the top gifts, right? She’d bought Grace an American Girl Doll, something that she’d always wanted when they’d first came out, but her mother had refused to buy it for her saying that spending almost ninety dollars on a doll was ridiculous. Besides, she had pointed out, a doll like that was meant to stand on top of a dresser and look nice, not to play with. Whatever, she thought with a smirk. I’m going to make sure that Grace can play with it. What’s the use of having a doll if it’s just going to sit there and collect dust?

Grabbing her gift, she got out of her car and headed towards the direction of the side gate which led to Izzy and Tristan’s backyard. As soon as she closed the gate behind her she was attacked by a strawberry blonde headed toddler throwing their arms around her waist. “Aunt Alyssa!” Grace squealed.

Alyssa bent down so that she was face to face with her goddaughter. “Hey sweetie!” She wrapped her arms around her in a hug and kissed the top of her head. “You’re getting so big! And so grown up looking!”

Grace just nodded her head before very matter of factely replying, “Well, I am three now.” She held up three fingers to illustrate her point, before finally realizing the present in Alyssa’s hand. “Is that for me?”

Alyssa shook her head trying to hold back a grin. “Nope!” she teased. “I decided this year I should buy a present for your Mommy and Daddy instead.”

The toddler put her hands on her hips. “That’s not how it goes! It’s my birthday, so I get presents. Not Mommy and Daddy!”

“Of course it’s for you, you silly goose! I was just teasing you. Why don’t you show me where Mommy wants your presents to go?”

“Okay,” Grace agreed, taking Alyssa’s hand and leading her towards a table on the patio that was stacked with presents. “Mommy! Aunt Alyssa is here!”

Izzy appeared a moment later, taking the present from Alyssa’s hands. “Hey girl. What’s up?” she asked, placing the present on the table. “Thanks for coming. Where’s the hubbie?”

“Basketball game,” she explained. “One of his buddies scored Lakers tickets and invited him to go.”

“Fun,” she responded, rolling her eyes. “Well, come sit down with us and have a cocktail. Melanie and Leighanne are at the table over there.”

Alyssa looked over in their direction and spotted both Melanie and Leighanne sitting at a round patio table in the corner of the yard. They looked up, spotted her, and waved. Alyssa waved back and followed Izzy over to the table. “Margarita?” Izzy asked.

“No, thanks,” Alyssa politely declined as she took a seat. “I’m trying to avoid alcohol while I’m trying to get pregnant, just in case. I don’t want to find out I’m pregnant and then freak out because I had a drink before I found out for sure.”

“One drink at that early on in a pregnancy won’t kill you, but whatever,” Izzy shrugged.

“You’re really taking this whole motherhood thing seriously, huh?” Melanie asked.

Alyssa nodded. “I have to. This might be my only chance to have children if something happens to Sean.”

“You’ve been trying for a while now haven’t you?” Leighanne chimed in.

“Since the end of October,” Alyssa sighed. “It’s getting a little frustrating. I never thought it would be this hard to conceive a child, but apparently it’s not as easy as it looks.”

Izzy smirked. “I seemed to have no problem conceiving at all. Grace was a complete surprise to Tristan and I. She couldn’t have come at a more imperfect time, but she’s a definitely blessing.”

“Isn’t that totally ironic? Here I am, desperately trying to get pregnant and can’t, yet you had no problem.” Alyssa sighed as she turned towards Leighanne. “Did you have a hard time getting pregnant with Baylee?”

“Not too hard of a time,” the older woman honestly answered. “But the more you stress about it the harder it is. At first, Brian and I were trying so hard and just like you, we kept getting frustrated that nothing was happening. Then it just got to the point where we decided to let whatever happen, happen, and that’s when I became pregnant with Baylee. It’ll happen when the time is right, but you need to relax. Your body can practically feel anxiety.”

“That’s easier said than done,” she muttered. “I’m just so afraid that it’s not going to happen before Sean leaves for Iraq. He wants this so badly, and I feel like if I can’t get pregnant I’m letting him down big time”

“I’m sure Sean won’t be disappointed in you,” Leighanne assured her. “How can he? It’s all up in the hands of God. If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. If not, then maybe there’s a reason for that.”

Seeing how upset Alyssa looked at the possibility of not being able to become pregnant, Melanie spoke up, trying to reassure the younger woman. “Don’t feel bad Alyssa. You know how hard it was for me and Kevin to get pregnant with Julian,” she explained, referring to her son who was born a few months after Grace. “Everyone kept bothering us about when we were going to start having children, and the worst part was that we were trying, but nothing was happening. We really began to think that maybe something was wrong with one of us and we’d never be able to conceive naturally. I think it’s still a little early yet for you to be so concerned, but if you’re really that worried about getting pregnant, I know an excellent fertility clinic here in LA that I can refer you to. They helped us out immensely and I don’t think we’d have Julian if it weren’t for them.”

A fertility clinic? Just the thought of having to seek out professional help in a fertility clinic, made Alyssa feel sick. She didn’t want to accept the fact that perhaps she or Sean had something wrong with them which was preventing them from conceiving children. Melanie had been right though. It wasn’t as if they’d been trying that long compared to some couples. There was no reason to panic just yet. “Thanks a lot Melanie. I’ll keep that in mind, in case I decide I want to check it out. But you’re right. It is way too early to blow things out of proportions and assume the worst. I’m probably just not paying close enough attention to when I’m ovulating or something like that.”

“It’ll happen for you when it’s supposed to,” Melanie assured her with a weak smile. “Leighanne’s right. You need to relax about it. The more stressed you get it’s only going to screw up your hormones and make it that harder to get pregnant.”

Alyssa just nodded, realizing they were absolutely right. She’d been putting so much pressure on herself that it very well could be affecting her ability to get pregnant. Why was she stressing so much? It would happen. It just needed time. Things like this couldn’t be rushed.

The conversation somehow shifted to Grace’s developing crush on Baylee, but Alyssa found herself only half listening as Izzy described her young daughter’s pre-school love life. Instead, she found herself gazing longingly at Grace, Baylee, and Julian, running around the backyard, involved in some sort of game of tag. Being the only woman at the table who didn’t already have a child made her feel left out in a way. Will I be a mother by this time next year? she wondered as she heard Izzy’s voice far off in her mind.

“She was so funny! The moment I told her that we were going to have a birthday party for her the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Can we invite Baylee?’ I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I had to explain to her that Baylee is a lot older than her and might have plans with his friends that are closer to his age. The poor things lip practically started quivering! If Leighanne and Brian didn’t bring Baylee today I think she would’ve thrown the mother of all tantrums.”

“Aren’t they related somewhere down the line too?” Melanie pointed out with a laugh. “Like cousins removed or something? Because that’s a little sick then.”

Izzy laughed. “No, actually they’re not really related because I’m Kevin’s cousin, but not Brian’s. I’m on the other side of the family. So, Grace is cousins with Julian, but not with Baylee if that makes sense.”

“It still sounds kind of wrong,” Melanie snickered.

The three women continued to laugh at the prospect of a future romance developing between Izzy’s daughter and Leighanne’s son, but Alyssa seemed oblivious to the conversation. Instead she was distracted by the rattling of the gate as it was pushed open and she found herself gasping in surprise at the familiar figure that had entered the yard. I had no idea that he was going to be here, she thought to herself.

“Uncle Nick!” she heard Grace’s voice squeal as she ran over to him and threw her arms around his legs.

Alyssa watched for a moment with a small smile on her face as Baylee and Julian also flocked over to him. Nick spent a few minutes talking with the three children and she found herself surprised by the way he seemed to interact so freely with them. Was this really the same man who didn’t want to have kids? He’d make such a great father, she realized as she watched him make a goofy face that made all the children erupt into laughter. She wondered if Shayla was disappointed in his decision or not.

Speaking of Shayla, Alyssa realized that she had yet to appear, making her wonder if Nick had come alone to the party. She watched him as he left the children and headed over to where Brian, Kevin, and a few other people were standing on the patio. The move surprised her a little since she’d expected him to come right over to her. Had it been possible that he hadn’t seen her? There really weren’t that many people in the yard though. She found herself frowning for a moment until she realized what she was doing.

You’re surprised that your ex boyfriend didn’t come over and say hello to you first before two of his best friends? The thought did seem pretty dumb. Why should she care? They were long broken up and with two different people now, so they were now most probably reduced to just casual acquaintances. Still though, he’d been quite friendly with her when they’d met up at Koi. Was that only because he wanted to put on a show for Sean?

She waited for a few minutes, expecting Nick to come over to their table, but instead he got himself a beer from the cooler and continued to talk with Brian and Kevin. The minutes ticked by and he made no motion of approaching them. Very odd for Nick, she noted.

“Alyssa? Earth to Alyssa?” Izzy waved her hands in front of her eyes. “You’ve been way too quiet all of a sudden. Are you okay?”

Alyssa snapped her eyes away from the three men and refocused her attention on Izzy. “Sorry,” she quickly apologized. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure honey?” Leighanne asked in a concerned voice. “Your face is so pale you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Maybe I have, she cynically thought to herself, before directing the inevitable question at Izzy. “How come you didn’t tell me that Nick was coming?”

Nick stood rooted to his spot, sipping his beer, as he listened to Brian and Kevin talk. He hadn’t seen much of the guys since the Unbreakable tour had wrapped up, so there was plenty to talk about although Nick had to admit he was only half paying attention. One eye was on Kevin and Brian, nodding his head as if he were genuinely interested in what they were saying, but the other kept sneaking glances at Alyssa sitting in the corner of the yard at a patio table with Izzy, Leighanne, and Melanie. He’d noticed the surprised expression on her face from the moment he walked into the yard, but he purposely hadn’t gone over to her since he’d arrived. After much thought about how to handle seeing her again, he’d decided not to make himself appear to eager by immediately swooping down on her. He’d been the one to approach her the last time they’d met up at Koi a few weeks prior. He didn’t want to make it seem like she was the only reason he’d came to the party. He was only looking for a friendship and he was afraid that if he did acknowledge her right away, she’d get the wrong idea.

Nick’s plan was simple. He intended to continue to avoid her until finally she came over to him. Yea… It did seem a little juvenile, but he wanted to make sure that she was interested enough to resume a friendship with him. It was a two way street, and he didn’t want to make a fool out of himself by being the only one working at resurrecting things. If she approached him, it would give Nick the indication that she still cared about him enough to at least be friends and that she was definitely no longer angry with him. So far it seemed to be working like a charm. He could tell just by a few glances in Alyssa’s direction that she was confused as to why he hadn’t come over to her. The bewildered look on her face caused Nick to estimate that she’d probably approach him in a few more short minutes. The avoidance trick to get a women’s attention was something that he hadn’t used in a long time, but he’d mastered it well in his early years. It had never failed him yet.

“So Nick how’s the label thing going?” Kevin asked him, interrupting his thoughts. Even after he’d left the group, Nick had to admit that Kevin seemed to still have the ability to tell exactly when he started to zone out and pull him back in again.

“It’s going really good,” he started to explain. “I mean it’s a slow process, but things are beginning to come together. My first artist is just about ready to begin recording and I have two others right behind.” He went on to describe the artists that he was currently working with and how he was currently still scouting out other possible artists which was proving to be the most arduous task for him. “If I have to listen to one more bad demo tape I think I might scream…”

His voice trailed off as he noticed Alyssa stand up from her spot at the table out of the corner of his eye. He smirked to himself as he saw that she was heading in his direction. Keeping his cool he continued to babble on. “I mean you’d be surprised with how many rich kids who have no talent book studio time to record a demo. I guess they think since they have money they can buy talent? All I know is that finding potential artists is a lot harder than I expected it to be.”

He had just finished his sentence as Alyssa approached the three of them. “Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt you guys, but I just wanted to say a quick hello. I completely forgot to come by when I first walked in.” Nick watched as she greeted both Brian and Kevin with a hug and a kiss, but seemed to ignore him. Is my plan backfiring? he wondered.

His face must have given him away because Alyssa turned her attention to him. “Oh, and Nick! I can’t believe I didn’t even notice you walked in! Izzy didn’t even mention to me that you were coming.” It was a complete lie, minus the part about Izzy not mentioning Nick had been invited, but Alyssa figured that he didn’t need to know that.

Bullshit, Nick thought to himself, completely seeing through her. That’s why you kept looking over here the moment I walked into the yard. “It was kind of a last minute invitation,” he explained, trying to remain aloof.

Alyssa peered over his shoulder. “Is Shayla with you?”

Nick smirked, knowing fully well that Alyssa had noticed Shayla’s absence the moment he’d walked in. “No, she has some work thing to do.” It was a half truth. Shayla was supposed to be covering some movie premiere that night. He just hadn’t mentioned that he was attending Grace’s birthday party and that Alyssa would be there. “Where’s Sean?”

“Lakers game,” she replied. “A friend of his managed to score some tickets to the game tonight, so they’re having a guy’s night.”

“Nice…” The conversation fell a little flat for a moment. “Can I get you anything? Do you want a beer or something?”

Alyssa just shook her head. “No thank you. Can’t have any alcohol.”

No alcohol? Nick’s eyes widened. If she couldn’t drink that could only mean one thing… He hadn’t expected to be confronted with this, but he wanted to kick himself for not considering it. She had told him that she and Sean had been trying. He swallowed hard. “Wow… I guess congratulations are in order. I know that you’ve been trying, but I’m really surprised it happened so fast. I –“

“What are you talking about Nick?” she asked him with a frown.

Nick could already feel his face redden. “You know… You’re pregnant right? Last time we talked, you and Sean were uhh trying to have a baby…”

Just by the painful look that crossed her face, Nick knew that he couldn’t be more wrong. He grimaced at his blunder. “I guess I was wrong… I’m sorry about that.”

“Don’t be,” she assured him. “It was an honest mistake. To my knowledge I’m not pregnant yet, but since I am trying I’m playing it safe and avoiding alcohol. That’s what I meant when I said I can’t have any.”

He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but he could swear that there was a lot less excitement in his ex girlfriend’s voice than there had been a few weeks prior. “So uhh how is it going?” he awkwardly asked. “You guys are still trying?” Again he winced at the way the question had come out of his mouth. Nice Carter… Why don’t you just come right out and ask her how her sex life is?

Luckily Alyssa took the comment lightheartedly. She laughed at his obvious embarrassment. “I think that’s a little bit of a personal question to be asking your ex girlfriend, huh?”

Nick uncomfortably shifted from side to side. “You’re right. I’m sorry I asked. That was inappropriate.”

Sensing the awkwardness of the situation, Alyssa felt guilty. She hadn’t intended to come off like a bitch or anything like that. Giving him a weak smile, she broke the silence. “If you must know though, yes we are still trying. It’s just taking a little more time than expected, but it’ll happen.”

Nick still didn’t buy the false conviction in her voice, but let the subject drop. Instead he took a deep breath and mustered up the courage to suggest what needed to be done. “Listen I think the both of us have a lot of things that we need to say to each other that we couldn’t necessarily say in front of Shayla and Sean, so maybe we should go inside somewhere so that we can talk?”

Alyssa was taken back by his suggestion. Where did that come from? she wondered. Since bumping into Nick a few weeks earlier, she hadn’t really felt that they needed to have a serious conversation about their past together. She thought that it was pretty obvious where they were in their lives at the moment. So, why bring up the past now? Especially when she’d long ago decided to forgive and forget Nick for cheating on her. She now realized that maybe it was meant to be. She was definitely very happy with Sean, and if it weren’t for her breakup with Nick she’d have never moved down to North Carolina, and never met Sean. But maybe it was different for Nick. He’d never been one who would voluntarily face conflict, so just by him suggesting they talk Alyssa got the sense that this was important to him. Maybe it would be good to clear the air between the two of them. “All right,” she agreed. “If you want to talk, we’ll talk. I’m sure Izzy won’t mind if we sit in the living room where it’s quieter.”

Nick just nodded and they both headed inside the house through the sliding glass doors. There was a tense silence in the air as they both uncomfortably settled themselves onto the living room couch. Nick was the first one to break the silence with small talk. “So, are you still teaching? I never got around to asking you that the last time I saw you.”

Alyssa nodded. “I taught second grade for two years down in North Carolina and now I’m teaching third and fourth grade special ed here in California.”

“That’s a big change huh? Must be tough working with special ed students,” he commented.

She shrugged. “It’s challenging, but not as scary as it sounds. Everyone has this stigma about special education. As soon as you hear the words you think mentally retarded or behavior problems, but that’s completely inaccurate. I have learning disabled students and they’re the sweetest things. Once in a while they act out, but it’s mostly because they are frustrated that they’re learning at a slower pace than a normal third or fourth grader. Instead of multiplication, we’re still struggling with addition and subtraction. It’s not so bad though because they’re about the same level as my second graders were, so I can reuse a lot of things I did with them. And it’s nice only having eleven students instead of twenty-five. It just takes a lot of patience and you have to move a lot slower, but they pick up at their own speed.”

Nick just nodded. “That makes sense.” He’d forgotten how passionate Alyssa was about teaching and the way her eyes seemed to light up when she was talking about her career. He finally could understand that the way that she felt about her students was the same way that he felt about his music.

The conversation seemed to fall flat at that moment and Nick realized that since he was the one who suggested that they talk, he should be the one to get the ball rolling. “I’m just going to cut to the chase and say what’s on my mind,” he started off. “Seeing you again at Koi a few weeks ago stirred up a lot of old memories in me.” Noticing the startled look on Alyssa’s face he quickly held up her hand to allow himself to keep speaking. “Before you get all worried trust me, it wasn’t really romantic memories. I understand that you are with Sean now and I’m with Shayla and you seem really happy. So in no way is this me trying to squeeze my way back into your heart. That ship has sailed and I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve both moved on. Still, situations like this, where we’re bound to cross paths are inevitable and they’re going to happen. I just don’t want things to be awkward or anything between us. I don’t want us to have to purposely ignore each other or anything like that.”

“Nick… I don’t find that things are awkward at all. You’re right. Our ship has sailed, but maybe it was meant to work out this way.” Alyssa took a deep breath prepared to give him the speech that she had rehearsed so many times in her head for exactly this occasion. “No offense, but I think breaking up with you was probably the best decision of my life. I know that sounds cold, but at that point in my life I was a mess. I looked in the mirror and I hated what I saw looking back at me. After all that shit that happened in Australia, it knocked what little self confidence I had in myself completely down. It wasn’t until after Grace was born I realized that I needed to make some major changes in my life in order for me to be happy. I moved down to North Carolina, got a steady teaching job, and I met Sean. But you know what? At first I was so doubtful about myself and afraid of rejection that I almost destroyed my relationship with Sean before it even began. Luckily Sean is the type of guy that saw through all that and once I finally got up the nerve to confess the way I felt, he helped me work through my issues. Thanks to him I’m a much stronger and more confident person. For the first time in my life I feel comfortable in my own skin and being able to let go like that is such an amazing feeling. I just wish it was something that I could’ve done earlier on.”

As he listened to her confession, Nick found himself feeling increasingly guilty. It made him feel ashamed that in as many ways as he’d opened her up to new experiences; he’d also in the end been the one to completely break her. I don’t even deserve her friendship, he realized, and for the first time he began to have second thoughts. Could he and Alyssa possibly ever go back to being at the least friends? “I’m so sorry for the things I did,” he tried to apologize. “I’m not going to make excuses for my behavior because I was really stupid back then. I never intended to hurt you that way and I’m sorry that I put you through all that. I know an apology is too little too late, but I really hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive me.”

Alyssa’s reaction was not at all what Nick had anticipated. Instead of throwing her arms around him or even getting mad that he’d even have the audacity to ask for forgiveness, she did the strangest thing. She laughed. She freakin laughed! It seemed completely out of place to Nick. “Oh, I’ve forgiven you a long time ago!” she replied. “See, the old me would’ve held a lifelong grudge against you and would’ve plotted a thousand and one revenge fantasies, but now that just seems juvenile. Life’s too short to be angry. I think what happened was for the best. We didn’t work out and I met Sean. He’s who I think I’m meant to be with. I’m happy now with him and that’s all that matters, right?”

“Yea,” Nick echoed sadly. As dumb as it seemed he didn’t like the idea of Alyssa being with another man. But you have Shayla, he reminded himself. Still though the thought brought no consolation. Although he’d had relationships with many women throughout his lifetime, in his mind he only liked to think of Alyssa with him. He knew it was a double standard, but he couldn’t help thinking that way. For the first time a horrific thought fleeted across his mind. Are you only with Shayla because she’s a second choice next to Alyssa? Maybe resuming a friendship wasn’t such a great idea to begin with.
As if she were reading his mind, Alyssa immediately zeroed in on the doubt in his voice. “And you’re happy with Shayla too, right?”

“Yea… I mean we’ve kind of been going through some stuff lately, but so does every couple,” he explained, trying to mask the hesitation in his voice. He smirked. “Actually I guess I can blame you for that.”

“Me?” Alyssa’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “What did I do?”

“After we had dinner with you and Sean at Koi and you announced that you and Sean were trying to have a baby, Shayla decided that now she wants one. Personally, I don’t think she’s really ready to have one. Neither am I right now. With Shayla though, it’s more like I think she wants a child just for the glory of being a ‘mother.’ I don’t think she realizes that a baby isn’t like some designer purse that she can cart around on her arm.” He paused for a moment. “I haven’t told anyone that this was going on.”

“Ahh… I see.” It all began to make sense to Alyssa. The couple’s strange behavior when she had blurted out the news of her and Sean’s decision to try and have a child was clearly because the issue was very fresh in their minds. “I’m sorry about that,” she apologized. “I should’ve kept my mouth shut.”

“Not your fault,” Nick insisted. “You didn’t know.”

“Well, just so you know I wasn’t lying when I said you’d make a great father Nick. So, if that’s what’s holding you back, please don’t let it.”

Nick sighed. “It’s a lot of things. It’s just a complicated situation, but we’re working on a compromise. That’s the secret to a healthy marriage, right?”

“Or so they say,” she replied.

“I missed you Alyssa,” Nick confessed, seemingly out of nowhere. “Not in a romantic way, but as a friend. You’ve always given me such good advice. You always manage to pull my head out of my ass when I’m acting like an asshole.”

Not sure how to respond to that, Alyssa decided to go with a joke. “Well, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”

“Seriously though… We’ve shared so much together, both good and bad and I feel like we have a really strong bond. I was just hoping that maybe we could actually be friends. I know that the friend thing kind of backfired on us the last time we tried it, but it’s different now. We’re both in very solid relationships, so I think that we can pull it off. I just don’t want you to be a stranger to me.”

Alyssa slowly nodded as if she were in deep thought. “I was trying to explain this to Sean because I think he was a little upset that I was so friendly with you at Koi.”

“Sean was jealous of me?” Nick interrupted; secretly a little delighted with the idea.

“Not exactly jealous per say, but he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t giving you the cold shoulder. Sometimes I think that because of his age he doesn’t always the think the same way that I do just yet,” she explained.

“Exactly how old is Sean anyway?” he asked warily. He’d had his suspicions that Sean was younger, but he wasn’t exactly sure how young.

“He’s twenty-six.”

Nick smirked. “Twenty-six, eh? That makes you a cougar.” He laughed, finding the thought pretty funny.

“Shut up… It’s only two years, besides not like you’ve never robbed the cradle before. If I remember correctly Stephanie was only sixteen when you hooked up with her.”

For a moment Nick inwardly cringed at the mention of Stephanie’s name. She’d been on the main reasons they’d broken up in the first place. Finally having the nerve to look at the expression on Alyssa’s face he was relieved to find her smiling. If she can joke about that she really has changed, he realized. “Okay… So I walked right into that one,” he admitted. “On a more serious note though, how are things between the two of you?”

Alyssa just shrugged and looked away, not comfortable with the topic of her estranged relationship with her younger sister. “We don’t talk. She came to my wedding, but more because I was obligated to invite her.”

Nick frowned. “But you forgave me and not her? I thought you didn’t hold grudges anymore?”

“Blood is thicker than water,” she simply replied. “She’s my family and for a member of my family to do that to me is simply unforgivable. She knew better.” Seeing the torn expression on Nick’s face she immediately tried to ease his guilt. “It’s all right Nick. I’m better off without her in my life. If you can’t trust your family who can you trust? She’s always been the black sheep.”

Not wanting to press the topic any further, he changed the subject. “So what were you trying to explain to Sean?”

“Oh yea…” Alyssa remembered her original point of the conversation. “I was telling Sean that as much as he doesn’t like to think about it, you and I had a very serious relationship at one point in our lives, and because of that relationship we share a very special connection. Even though the relationship is dead and buried we’re tied to each other in certain ways. You were the first guy I’ve ever really loved and I think I’d like to say that even though things didn’t work out between us, that we can still be a part of each other’s lives. Not many people can say that they are still on speaking terms with their first love. I admit that the old me wouldn’t have been able to do it. But we’re both different people now and I think that we can handle it.”

Nick’s lips lifted up in a smile. “So that means we’re friends?”

“Friends,” she repeated. Nick was so overjoyed with her response that he enveloped her in a hug. The embrace was tense at first, but Alyssa slowly found herself relaxing in his arms. It was a very different sensation, hugging him as not a lover, but a friend, yet not totally alien to her either.

Neither one of them noticed the sliding glass doors opening until they heard Grace’s voice interrupting them. “Mommy sent me in to get you ‘cause we’re gonna open presents now,” the toddler announced. “She also said that I should check on you and make sure that you are okay.”

“Thanks Gracie,” Alyssa told her, sliding out of Nick’s embrace. “We’ll be right out.”

Grace still stood rooted to her spot eyeing the two of them suspiciously. Alyssa could practically see the wheels turning in her little head. Before either of them could ask her what was wrong, she blurted out, “Aunt Alyssa? Are you and Uncle Nick boyfriend and girlfriend?”

The question threw both of them for a loop as they both stared at each other in bewilderment, neither one of them wanting to approach this one. “What makes you ask that sweetheart?” Alyssa asked. “And how do you know about boyfriends and girlfriends?”

“Wellll… The two of you were hugging and you were in here for a pretty long time!” the child innocently explained.

Alyssa exchanged another glance with Nick trying to hold in her laughter. “Uncle Nick and I are very good friends and we haven’t seen each other in a long time, so we came inside so that we could talk and get caught up again. You can be friends with a boy and not be their girlfriend. Your friends with Baylee and you’re not his girlfriend, right?”

“Bad example,” Nick snickered.

“No, Mommy says that Baylee thinks I’m too young to be his girlfriend, but maybe when I get older, like six, he’ll change his mind.”

Alyssa just laughed at her goddaughter. “Well, it’s okay to be friends with boys and sometimes you hug your friends, especially when you haven’t seen each other in a long time. But honey, Uncle Nick and I are definitely not going out. Don’t you remember Uncle Sean? I’m married to him, so he’s my boyfriend.”

“And Aunt Shayla is my girlfriend,” Nick chimed in.

“Ohhh yea…” Grace finally seemed to realize. “Sorry. I forgot about that.”

“It’s okay sweetie,” Alyssa assured her. “Now let’s head outside because I know that I bought you a really cool present that I can’t wait for you to open up.”

“Okay!” The toddler went bounding out the door ahead of Nick and Alyssa.

“That was officially awkward,” Alyssa announced trying to still hold back laughter. “Where did she even get that idea? Izzy would never have told her that we even used to date.”

“You know what they say. Out of the mouth of babes,” Nick just responded with a lopsided grin.